When Nydia M. Velázquez ran to become the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, The New York Times described her as an “aggressive woman in a macho political world and some critics even went so far as to label her “an Eva Peronesque caricature of Banana Republic politics.”
Velázquez was considered an outsider and her accented English and close ties to the island and its way of doing politics were seen as foreign. It was 1992 and a very different time for women.
She had to defend herself against aspersions, personal revelations, and allegations of political misconduct. Yet, there she was — from Puerto Rico to Congress — cutting open the boys network and establishing herself as a powerful Boricua voice on Capitol Hill, twenty-six years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered the political arena.
She dedicated her victory to her mother, Doña Carmen Luisa Serrano, and all the women of Puerto Rico.
Today, Velazquez, 68, is the most powerful Puerto Rican politician in Washington — La Matriarca — and plays a central role in the archipelago’s future.
She never forgot her roots — de donde vino.
It has not been an easy feat.
“Back then, we (women) were an asterisk,” Velazquez said in a recent BELatina News interview. “Today women and the role that we play is more important than ever,” she said. “We have the leverage and the position of leadership.”
She is currently serving as Representative for New York’s 7th Congressional District. In the 117th Congress, she is the Chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, and a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. She chaired the Hispanic Caucus until 2011.
Velazquez was born in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, a beautiful town surrounded by verdant sugar cane fields. She was one of nine children and her father, Don Benito Velazquez, was passionate about the island’s colonial status and who controlled it. It was the topic of discussion at the dinner table.
She was the first person in her family to receive a college diploma and at 16, she entered the University of Puerto Rico. She graduated magna cum laude in 1974 with a degree in political science. After earning a master’s degree on scholarship from N.Y.U., Velázquez taught Puerto Rican studies at CUNY’s Hunter College in 1981.
Velazquez points to her aunt as her role model.
“My aunt was a registered nurse and a professor, she would take me to her house in Rio Piedras during the summers. I would love to go with her to her office, she inspired me and became my role model,” she said.
Puerto Rico’s status always mattered to her.
But it was island politics that schooled her for the fight she has waged in Congress for almost 30 years.
When she first arrived in Congress the lack of knowledge about Puerto Rico and its colonial status stunned her. “[It was] mind-boggling to see how much education needed to happen about Puerto Rico,” she said.
“The US had a colony but it was so detached from the reality of what Puerto Ricans were going through,” she said.
This is still true today.
“When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the president (then president Donald Trump) was surprised it was an island,” she said.
Trump, reacting to the devastation Maria wrought on the island in 2017 (which claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people in its aftermath largely due to the neglect of the Trump administration) was amazed to learn Puerto Rico was “an island sitting in the middle of an ocean — and it’s a big ocean, a really, really big ocean.”
Over the next three years, Trump consistently blocked disaster funding for the archipelago, saying Congress had “foolishly” spent $92 billion of aid money for Puerto Rico (it was less than half that amount), which had mostly been “squandered away or wasted.”
Trump even asked whether the U.S. could swap Greenland for Puerto Rico, because, in Trump’s words, “Puerto Rico was dirty and the people were poor.”
Trump “had no qualms to do it,” Velazquez said. “I raised hell when money was withheld.” She was outraged.
“Puerto Rico is just an asterisk in the national agenda, especially when it comes to budget negotiations,” she said.
But things are changing. Puerto Rico is not the same place since it was shattered by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
Even before Maria, the litany of disasters that finally drove almost one million people — a third of the island’s population — to the streets of San Juan in 2019 to oust pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) governor Ricardo Rosselló included a prolonged recession, a $72 billion dollar unscrupulous debt, a Washington-appointed Junta (with the unfortunate name of PROMESA), and bitter colonial truth: the US didn’t care.
She’s not afraid to use her voice for the sake of progress.
Velazquez initially supported PROMESA because “at that moment, we knew it was the only way” — the island didn’t have the legal framework to prevent Wall Street creditors from crushing the archipelago.
But she is not happy with how it has been implemented.
“I am not happy about how PROMESA has been implemented; it has not been transparent,” she said. “It has become a collection agency for the vultures and hedge funds,” while imposing onerous austerity measures that have severely impacted basic services such as health and education.
She also has her sights set on the act that has established Puerto Rico as a tax haven, which is backed by the present NPP Governor Pedro Pierluisi and party leaders.
“I am concerned that provisions included in Acts 20/22 (now Act 60), are deepening the inequality in Puerto Rico,” she said.
“I am worried that individuals who are moving to Puerto Rico just to lower their tax liability are causing community displacement as they are forcing Puerto Ricans out of their traditional neighborhoods and driving home prices to historically high levels,” Velazquez said.
She said that from Congress she will continue to push the IRS to provide greater oversight over the tax decrees that have been awarded under Act 60.
Most importantly, Velazquez, alongside Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is spearheading the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021, which calls for creating a “status convention” made up of delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters.
This would finally allow Puerto Ricans, not Congress, to determine its future — be it statehood, independence, a free association, or other solutions apart from its present territorial arrangement.
Velazquez acknowledges that the political and social architecture of the island has changed — especially since the ouster of Rosselló in 2019.
“The summer of 2019 was a new beginning for the people of Puerto Rico,” she said. “For the first time, we have seen a political transformation.”
This is why self-determination is imperative now. What is standing in the way is the insistence of the pro-statehood NPP party, and Pierluisi’s, to go it alone and push for statehood.
Pierluisi has even forced through the “election” of six delegates who supposedly will lobby for statehood in Washington – and one of them is the ousted Rosselló.
“Esto es un invento,” she said. “I don’t know what they are going to achieve.”
As any matriarch would, she says it like it is.
“That one [Rosselló] is a joke; it’s a joke,” she said. “You are going to have the governor who was forced to leave office be the face of those supporting statehood?”
“This is a political trick [of the statehood party] that they have always used to increase political participation at election time,” she said. The fallacy of the promise of statehood.
Velazquez believes that a message has been sent to the leaders of Puerto Rico to all come to the table in a process of self-determination.
“Why can’t they come together and support a process that is fair?” she said. “We need to work together, or we are going to spend the time fighting and get the same results.”
“The decision has to be made by those that support statehood to come to the table and stop this agony,” she said.
“Why are they so reluctant?” These are the questions many Puerto Ricans on the island are asking and look to La Matriarca — the most powerful Boricua voice the island has in Washington — to help answer.